McNabb perplexed by struggles

There are several theories on why Donovan McNabb has struggled this season -- something the Eagles QB is trying to figure it out.

Updated: September 28, 2003, 4:52 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Great mysteries of the world:

Who is inspector No. 47?

Why are lemmings compelled to rush toward the sea?

Who built those remarkable monuments on Easter Island?

What's wrong with Donovan McNabb?

Two years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback was second in the MVP balloting. Last September he signed a 12-year contract worth $115 million, the richest contract in NFL history. In this season's first two games he has been, to put it charitably, awful.

Donovan McNabb
McNabb has had a look of constant dejection this season.
The Eagles have scored 10 points -- the lowest total in the league. McNabb's passer rating of 41.4 is the worst among starters. His completion percentage (.451) isn't much better. He has been sacked 10 times, fumbled four times and thrown three interceptions -- and zero touchdown passes. Philadelphia is 0-2 and contemplating a potential 0-3 with Sunday's game in Buffalo.

What's with McNabb, who has consistently been one of the NFL's best players over the last three seasons?

Here in the City of Brotherly Love, conspiracy theories abound.

"Oh, really," McNabb said Wednesday during an interview with ESPN. "I would love to hear them."

Really? OK, here goes:

Sam Donnellon of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote a detailed Monday story about McNabb's offseason conditioning program that added 10 pounds of muscle to his upper body. Besides two exquisite headlines -- "Knocked on his Mass" and "Pumping Irony" -- it looked like a fairly flimsy excuse to run a picture of a shirtless McNabb on the front page.

"It's a stretch," said Jon Runyan, the Eagles' offensive tackle. "They're trying to fill space."

In June, McNabb married his Syracuse sweetheart, Raquel Nurse, a former basketball player for the Orangewomen. Somehow, some folks are implying, this is all her fault. That's what they said about Pete Sampras before he won the 2002 U.S. Open.

"I'm still working on that," McNabb said. "Maybe I have to call Sampras and find out how he was able to bounce back from that."

Another theory: McNabb is feeling the effects of the dreaded Campbell's Chunky Soup Curse. Terrell Davis limped into retirement, Kurt Warner has been bludgeoned to the sideline and now McNabb can't find his way into the end zone.

"That might have been it," McNabb said. "I ate too much. I'm recovering from the Chunky Corn Chowder. The way you have to look at it, (Michael) Strahan, (Brian) Urlacher did a pretty good job. John Lynch is on it now. And they seem to be rolling."

And then there is the odd notion that the fans are too close at Lincoln Financial Field (The Linc, where the Eagles are 0-2, has been rechristened the Stink). The players, the theory goes, are more tentative because they are bracing for the inevitably louder boos.

"That's a good one," McNabb said. "I'm going to have to write that one down."

There are other random thoughts: his new hair-do is to blame; he hasn't been the same since breaking his ankle last November and missing the six regular-season games; he's never been a particularly accurate passer; the receivers aren't getting open; he was overrated to begin with, etc.

"I'm still trying to figure it out, but I'm working with those," McNabb said. "But I'm still open for some suggestions, hoping I'll still get some good ones."

Seeking better situations
Invariably, quarterbacks draw too much praise when the team is winning and too much flak when it's losing. Is that fair?

"Sure," Runyan said, laughing. "You think back in the day when he was a kid, he chose to play that position. He knows what goes with it. High expectations, higher salary -- you take on more B.S. with it, too."

After 31-10 loss to New England in Week 2, Eagles' head coach Andy Reid tried to deflect the barrage of criticism.

"It's not about Donovan," Reid said. "It's about the team. We all need to do better. Please don't point the finger at him."

On Wednesday, Reid -- always a stand-up guy -- pointed the finger at himself.

"I have to go back and look at what I do, and the situations that I'm putting him in to be successful," Reid said. "I didn't put (him) in good enough situations. As a play-caller, I take that responsibility. I've got to do a better job."

Specifically, what would that entail?

"Well," Reid said, smiling, "I can't tell you those things because the Buffalo Bills are watching. I just need to mix and match a little better."

There is a widespread perception that McNabb operates more effectively outside of the pocket. This may or may not be true. Last year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, McNabb had the league's best passer rating (131.3) when he passed while moving forward, i.e., out of pocket. The numbers, however -- 12-for-21, 212 yards, three touchdowns and 0 interceptions -- don't seem to be broad enough to represent a significant sample.

Playoffs in jeopardy?
PHILADELPHIA -- The 0-2 Eagles will find themselves in a precarious position on Sunday in Buffalo.

Since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978, only 24 of the 282 teams that made the playoffs started the season 0-2. That works out to 8.5 percent. The percentage of teams that started 0-3 and went on to reach the postseason falls dramatically to 1.8. Put another way, only five teams in 25 years rallied from an 0-3 start.

"I don't really care," said Eagles offensive tackle Jon Runyan, "because I don't plan on being 0-3. You just have to go out and take care of it."

Andy Reid, the Eagles' head coach, was not impressed with the statistic.

"No," he said, "I don't get involved with that. That doesn't help you win football games. And we spend most of our time doing things that help us win."

After losing their first two games at home, the Eagles think a change of venue will help alter their fortunes -- even if it's at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"I hope so," Runyan said. "Yeah, I think it does (help). Hostile territory. The only people are the guys on the team. So you have to go in and gather everybody together, put everyone on the same page, knowing it's going to be hard.

"Go in and take it to them."
-- Greg Garber

"That's a total misnomer," McNabb said. "As a quarterback your job is to drop back and give it to the open receiver, let them run. Obviously, there are times when you get some pressure and you have to make decisions, step up in the pocket and buy time for your receivers and deliver the ball."

On the other hand, leaving the pocket can be dangerous; last season in Arizona it earned him a broken ankle.

"To make this offense good, you have to do a little bit of each," Reid explained. "You move the quarterback's launch point around and whether it's a straight drop-back, three- five-, seven-step drop, whether it's a half-roll or whether it's full play-action where he's booting out of the pocket -- those are all important responsibilities for a play-caller and I need to do a better job at that."

McNabb -- like Elway before him -- has never been a quarterback who could accurately be defined by the pass rating statistic because it does not factor in courage and risk and the ability to make big plays under duress. Last year his completion percentage of .584 was only the league's 22nd-best figure and his yards per attempt (6.34) was 23rd.

Somehow, the Eagles reached the NFC championship game for the second consecutive year.

Mechanical bull?
The background music for the Eagles' bye week was provided by a chorus of experts in mechanics.

"To be a consistent quarterback, you must be fundamentally sound," ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, a quarterback in Philadelphia for a decade, told Paul Domowitch of the Daily News. "Right now, Donovan isn't. He's throwing off his back foot … there's an incredible regression in his mechanics.

"You can read a quarterback's mind by watching his feet. And (against the Patriots) Donovan's feet were constantly moving."

A veteran scout, speaking anonymously to Sports Illustrated's Peter King, said, "His passes are so far off now, it's scary. It's unbelievable to me because he's played so much, yet he looks so uncomfortable in the pocket, as if he has no confidence in himself or his receivers."

Runyan confirmed what everyone else has sensed in the first two games.

"He wasn't comfortable," Runyan said. "He was thinking too much and not reacting to it."

Precisely.

McNabb has had a lot on his mind. Since he signed that huge deal, he has played in 11 games and thrown exactly 11 touchdown passes. The Eagles, interestingly, are 6-5 in those games.

When he broke his ankle on the third play of Philadelphia's Nov. 17 game against Arizona and played the rest of the way, throwing four touchdowns and leading the Eagles to a 38-14 victory, it confirmed McNabb's status as a superhero. When he missed the next six games and the Eagles fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship, it confirmed his mortality.

The loss of free agents, pass-rusher Hugh Douglas and kick returner Brian Mitchell, during the offseason put a little more indirect pressure on McNabb, who has never been surrounded by a stellar offensive cast. When the defensive players started to go down, from safety Brian Dawkins to cornerback Bobby Taylor to defensive lineman Brandon Whiting, the pressure on McNabb to deliver increased.

Has McNabb put too much pressure on himself?

Reid answered the question this way: "I will say this: He is the most competitive guy that I've ever been around. There is no one who wants to win more than Donovan."

So, what about it? Did he try too hard to make it happen all by himself against Tampa Bay and New England?

"That could be a little bit," McNabb said. "That could be it a little bit.

"That's the competitive nature in me. Just wanting to be the best and wanting to do everything I have to in order for this team to make it that far. You put pressure on your shoulders.

"You want to go out and be perfect. So I want to go out and be perfect. Maybe a little too perfect."

For example?

"It's just realizing that, OK, when you have a three-step drop, get the ball out, let the guy score. Five-step drop, get it out, let the guys work. Instead of maybe taking five steps, seeing a guy, but you know you've got a big play coming up, and a big person coming up on the post, or a deeper route to get a big play and holding onto it maybe a little bit longer than usual."

Really, it's that simple. McNabb, not liking what he was seeing, held onto the ball too long -- hoping he could make something happen. He did, but it was almost always something bad, like a sack or turnover.

The bye week, McNabb said, has given him time to reflect.

"What I've come up with," he said earnestly, "is that I just need to be me."

A cliché, to be sure, but clichés are merely truths that have congealed into truisms.

"I need to go out and play football and have fun," McNabb said. "If I do that, then everything will be fine."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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